History or His story?

Politicians’ sex scandals are rearing their hoary heads in the press once again.

There’s the Strauss-Kahn front-page news of a nude Frenchman pursuing a maid in a New York hotel, his perp-walk photos, the French maintaining it was a suave man behaving normally, and, well you get the picture (though it’s hoped that no pictures are ever released).

Then there are the hundreds of L.A. Times readers who canceled their subscriptions to that paper in the 2003 run-up to the governor recall election after the newspaper reported that then-candidate and Hollywood action figure Arnold Schwarzenegger had, in a former show-biz life, groped women.  If any of these former readers are perusing that West Coast paper, they’ll have found countless pages this in May telling of the governator’s activities some 14 years ago when he fathered a son with the help of a former household worker.

And don’t forget the national media’s current, on-going fascination with the extra-marital business of former presidential candidate John Edwards or the monkey business that sunk Gary Hart’s presidential hopes nearly 30 years ago, and how the media fell all over themselves to get photos of Hart and his non-spouse girlfriend.

Then there were media articles about Bill Clinton’s preference for boxer shorts.  And that was before the countless Clinton-Lewinsky stained-dress commentaries, editorial cartoons featuring Oval-office cigars, and photographs that appeared in 1998 in every mass medium around the world. Though Rep. Anthony Weiner’s recent sexting scandal produced fewer photos than did Clinton’s escapades, what photos there were finally sank his political ship, though at this writing some are predict

ing the New York Democratic congressman’s political boat may one day be floated again.

While the bedroom intrigues of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy went largely unreported by the media of their day, one former U.S. president’s supposed sexual escapades became campaign fodder.  Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was the nation’s only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (1885–1889 and 1893–1897). He was the first Democrat elected after the Civil War.

The phrase “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” became an unofficial campaign slogan for Cleveland’s opponents in 1884.  However, historians have maintained that Cleveland instructed his staff to “tell the truth” and admitted paying child support to Maria Halpin, the woman who said he fathered her child.  Cleveland took responsibility as he was the only bachelor among the men who had been involved with the child’s mother.

While historians seem to have all but unanimously discounted the paternity charges against Cleveland, the press at that time nevertheless had a field day with the issue.   Ultimately, though, it was the candidate’s reputation for honesty that most historians say helped secure his election victory.

But politicians’ sex scandals can take on lives of their own, especially in today’s Internet era.  The Daily Beast recently reported that Charles Lachman, executive producer of “Inside Edition”, has written a book, “A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies and Scandal of President Grover Cleveland,” to be published in August.  In his Daily Beast commentary Lachman claims to have unearthed a “long-forgotten affidavit” from Halpin about a violent sexual assault that spawned Cleveland’s illegitimate child – supposed “evidence” that somehow mysteriously eluded generations of serious historians.

Thus, we’re not only in an era where the media salivate over and report gossip of every imaginable detail of politician’s sexual indiscretions.  We’re also in a media twilight zone where the Internet is able to provide lecterns to conspiracy-theorists and journalists engaged in revisionist “history”.


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